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Turning to stone

By Rachel Spence

Published: September 9 2006 03:00 | Last updated: September 9 2006 03:00

Since the days of ancient Egypt, obelisks have been employed by architects to signal the presence of sacred sites to pilgrims. "It is the calling card of the city of stone," says Claudio D'Amato Guerrieri, professor of architectural design at Bari Polytechnic.

This week, a 15.5-metre example will loom over the red-brick warehouses and docks of Venice's medieval shipyard, marking the entrance to a special exhibition that is part of the city's 10th Architecture Biennale. Appropriately, the show is called Cities of Stone and the material is its undisputed star.

At first consideration, this seems an eccentric choice. Stone has been around since the Pharaohs. Surely there's nothing new to say about it. But D'Amato, who curated the exhibition, insists that it is stone's illustrious past that makes it the right medium for the future, especially in southern Europe.

"Mediterranean cities are cities of stone, directly generated by the Greek and Roman civilisation, by its particular form of rationality," he explains. He worries that this classical heritage is being swept away in a post-Corbusier tide of cement, glass and steel.

"A city is like a person. If it forgets its tradition, its memory, it loses its cultural identity."

As an example, D'Amato cites the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome, designed by the modernist Richard Meier to house an ancient sacrificial altar. Some would argue that the airy glass, concrete and travertine structure brings a spirit-lifting touch of modernity to the banks of the Tiber but D'Amato disagrees. "It's like putting Beauborg [the Pompidou Centre] on the Grand Canal in Venice."

Yet to dismiss D'Amato as a stuffy traditionalist would be a mistake. His ideal Mediterranean city is the fruit of a marriage between traditional stonemasonry and advanced technology. "There is nothing to say that glass and steel are intrinsically modern or that stone is necessarily ancient. It depends on how they are used."

Take the stone barrel vault, originally conceived by an 18th-century French geometrician, Joseph Abeille, which acts as the centrepiece for the section of the show entitled "The art of the stonecutter". Abeille studied the traditional flat vault, commonly used to build staircases in the servants' quarters of grand houses where vertical space was lacking. "He developed a way of varying the stone grid that supports the arch, which would have allowed lots of different models to be built. But he couldn't translate it into practice," D'Amato explains.

The professor and his students fed the centuries-old plans into a computer-aided design programme and not only realised them but developed them further, turning the flat surface back into an arch. The result is an impeccable curve with a pristine grid of stone that interlocks so snugly no mortar was necessary.

"Only the ancient Greeks could have produced a barrel vault without mortar," D'Amato says proudly.

Also on display are projects for two bridges, both intended for Venice, whose fluid arcs illustrate the vault's practical uses.

A new vogue for stonecutting will have welcome consequences for the way we live. "Houses built of stone have huge advantages over those built in cement," D'Amato explains, and not only in the Mediterranean. "You have only to look at the great country houses of Sir Edwin Lutyens to see how preferable stone is to a cement cage. Now, thanks to the technical possibilities of the material allied to the new technology, you can create marvellous spaces with, say, arched or vaulted ceilings or cupolas."

His barrel vault, historically used as an intermediary floor in staircases, would be the ideal ceiling for a ground-floor salon. Other ideas that could transform domestic spaces include a spiral staircase, lunette windows and balustraded terraces, all rendered in three-dimensional models.

Of course, houses in the Mediterranean have traditionally been built of stone for practical reasons. "It retains the heat in winter and stays cool in summer," D'Amato says. "It's the best choice by far. But the tradition has been lost recently and houses are much less comfortable as a result."

The main section of the exhibition, Project South, aims to change that. It showcases the shortlisted entries for an international competition to renovate - with stone - rundown areas in four southern Italian coastal cities: Syracuse, Crotone, Pantelleria and Bari. All possess great natural beauty but have been scarred by brutal modern buildings often erected without planning permission.

The proposals will see the four sites transformed into places of cultural interest. In Syracuse, the Latomie dei Cappuccini is home to a medieval botanical garden created around ancient caves while Bari has the 12th-century Basilica of San Nicola. Changes that highlight these traditional structures should attract visitors as well as providing a much more comfortable environment for residents.

In the harbour of Pantelleria, potentially one of the prettiest marinas in the Mediterranean, one competition entry's proposal for new dwellings will take the traditional local style - in which walls are slightly angled away from 90 degrees like the lower half of a pyramid - and update it in a contemporary style.

D'Amato also hopes to see architects suggesting "continuous façades" of houses. "Well-planned cities must project a coherent face to the world," he says, citing the elegant rows of Georgian townhouses that one sees in London or Bath as role models.

Unlike many high-profile competition designs, those proposed in Project South might just get realised, thanks to its inclusion in the government-backed programme Contemporary Senses. Started in 2003 as a joint initiative between the Venice Biennale and the ministries of finance and cultural heritage, the programme's aim is to revitalise southern Italy through investment in contemporary art and architecture. The average income is 40 per cent of that in the north and corruption and crime continue to flourish.

"We want the Biennale's influence to extend beyond Venice," says Alberto Versace, director-general of the department for political development in the finance ministry. On October 7, the final exhibition in this year's Biennale, City-Port, will open in Palermo.

Contemporary Senses is already having an impact. Art exhibitions have been held in Sicily, Naples, Lecce, Bari, Potenza and Matera. Meanwhile the mayor of Bari has been to Moscow to ask his Russian counterpart to consider investing in Project South - the Basilica receives thousands of Russian Orthodox pilgrims every year. The half-built skeletal apartments that mar his city's landscape are scheduled to be dynamited next spring.

It's clear from all these initiatives that, even though they claim to focus on southern Europe, D'Amato and others are most concerned with Italian architecture. Cities of Stone is dedicated to the visionary Milanese architect Aldo Rossi, who directed the 1985 Biennale and died in 1997. "There used to be an Italian line [of architecture] that was respected but the last great name is Rossi's," D'Amato says.

His determination to highlight Italian style is reflected throughout the Biennale. The new Italian pavilion in the Arsenale will display national architects, while the Italian pavilion in the  public gardens will show an international selection.

"It was a conscious decision to prioritise Italy," Biennale president Davide Croff explains. "Italy deserves to be at the centre of attention because our architectural and artistic heritage demands it."

In Cities of Stone, the desire to celebrate Italian architecture culminates in the section entitled "The other modernity". Dedicated to what D'Amato describes as the "golden age of 1930s masonry architecture", this part of the show aims to prove that modern Mediterranean cities have been successfully constructed out of stone - many of them by Italian architects working in the neoclassical style that became the signature of Mussolini's empire.

Photographs and critical studies illustrate and analyse the broad streets - ideal for military processions - clean porticoes and angular, spartan buildings of Portolago, the foundation city built by Italian architects on the Greek of island of Leros, an Italian colony between 1912 and 1947. We see the pristine neoclassical palace that was built to house the ministry of foreign affairs in Albania (not an Italian colony) by Florestano di Fausto between 1928 and 1932 and the severe, commanding facades that overlook the seafronts at Bari and Taranto. Less obviously imperial are the buildings the Italians built on Kos, their austere lines softened by Ottoman-style crenellations and Moorish arches.

Earlier D'Amato had claimed that Cities of Stone was "anti-globalisation" but the reality is more complicated. For armies - and architects - are no respecters of national boundaries.

'Cities of Stone' is part of the Venice Architecture Biennale, which runs from September 10 until November 19. Tel: +39 041 51 8711; www.labiennale.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006